Redwood City’s Unique Courthouse Square

Guest post by James O. Clifford, Sr, who writes a history column for the San Mateo Daily Journal and makes regular contributions to San Mateo County’s Journal of Local History.

The crowds are usually standing room only at summer concerts on Redwood City’s Courthouse Square, a venue so popular it’s often called downtown’s “anchor.” This is an apt title, because the square has historic “anchors” at both ends — the old county courthouse and the Fox Theater.

The courthouse, which now houses the county history museum, debuted in 1910, a big year on the Peninsula. Among other things, the Dumbarton Bridge opened, becoming the first bridge to span the bay, although traffic was limited to trains. The newspapers of July 4, 1910 that honored the courthouse birth overflowed with the optimism and confidence of a young nation that suddenly possessed an empire wrested from Spain.

The July 4, 1910 edition of the Redwood City Democrat was important for reasons other than reporting every aspect of the new courthouse: It was the first time women produced the paper. “When it is issued it will go far to convince the public that the ladies know what news is and how to write it,” the Democrat’s June 16 issue predicted. It convinced me.

The women writers included Frona Colburn who boasted that “wireless telegraphy and telephone and quick contact with the outside world are man’s parallel to God’s great gift of the climate and bay. […] Surely Redwood City is among the best.” After all, the city of 2,442 had two weekly newspapers and five churches. There was a hint of some problems ahead. A very short story at the bottom of the paper reported that the “waters of the Bay are being polluted,” but in the main there were few naysayers.

In 1910 the Redwood City Woman’s Club hoped there would be a fountain in the square in front of the courthouse. Those in charge, however, opted for a basic plaza design sans fountain. Today there are several fountains in the square. When it was rededicated in 2010, the refurbished courthouse square was described by the New York Times as the power in a “Silicon Valley relaunch.”

The San Mateo County Courthouse following the 1906 earthquake.

Even with competition from the fountains, the courthouse dome, which was about all that was left of the old courthouse after the 1906 earthquake, steals the show. The dome that caps the building at 70 feet up consists of a 36-foot diameter inner dome and a 40-foot high double outer dome. It contains 38,240 pieces of antique colored glass in 144 panels, 27,000 feet of lead, and 50,000 solder joints. When lighted, the dome is indeed a “landmark.”

The Fox — the other Anchor

A music festival in Courthouse Square with the Fox Theatre gleaming behind.

At the other end of Courthouse Square is the Fox Theatre, which was the largest movie house between San Francisco and San Jose when it opened under the name of The Sequoia on January 5, 1929 — the year the nation was mugged by the Depression. It became the Fox in the 1950s. Other cities have resurrected movie palaces, like the Paramount and the Fox in Oakland. Is there another city, however, that has historic landmarks at both ends of its downtown square?

The 1,200-seat Sequoia was the work of Reid & Reid, an architectural and engineering firm with a resume that boasted the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego and the Fairmont in San Francisco. In addition, the firm is credited with more than 20 theaters in the San Francisco Bay Area alone.

The Sequoia’s opening was big news. The Redwood City Tribune reported on every detail. Patrons could imagine “they [were] in a town somewhere in Spain,” the paper said of the theater’s Moorish interior. The walls consisted of a series of archways that recalled a Spanish courtyard. A machine projected moving clouds and twinkling stars across the ceiling. An estimated 3,000 people attended opening night to see Clara Bow star in “Three Week Ends.” The show house also had a stage for vaudeville acts, which on opening night featured the Eddie Harkness Band and the dancing Curral Twins.

The Fox Theatre in 1950, after its reopening.

The Moorish interior’s run ended on June 21, 1950 when a section of the plaster ceiling collapsed, injuring 27 people in the balcony, three of them seriously. Much of the interior was covered or replaced but the lobby, with arches that line the walls, still has the feel of the original.

The movie house changed its name to Fox and reopened on Sept. 15, 1950, offering Betty Grable in “My Blue Heaven.” One reporter described the Fox as “completely remodeled and shining from a giant-sized portion of gold paint.”

Both the Fox and the courthouse are on the National Register of Historic Places. So next time you go to a concert, read the information placards. Even take some time and go inside. There’s a lot to see.